The People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI-MEK) has been leading the push for democracy in Iran since very soon after the 1979 revolution. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a democratic coalition of Iranian opposition organizations and personalities was formed on the initiative of Mr. Massoud Rajavi, the leader of the Iranian Resistance, in July 1981 in Tehran, Iran. NCRI steadfastly sought an end to religious dictatorship and promotes a free and democratic Iran based on its platform. Khomeini, the regime then supreme leader ordered the IRGC to fire on the peaceful demonstration attended by half a million people in Tehran that included thousands of teenage students. But that clash also establish a trend of extraordinary resilience within the ranks of the MEK. That resilience would be put to the ultimate test seven years later, when the organization became the primary target of a crackdown on dissent which would ultimately leave upwards of 30,000 people dead. In the summer of 1988, Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring the regime’s opponents to be enemies of God, and thus universally subject to capital punishment. “Death commissions” throughout the country quickly put that principle into practice by interrogating political prisoners over their views and affiliations, then summarily executing those who failed to demonstrate absolute fealty to the theocratic system.
In 2016, an audio recording from the time of the massacre confirmed many of the details that the MEK had previously reported about the killings. In it, Ali Hossein Montazeri, who was then Khomeini’s heir apparent, highlighted instances of teenagers and pregnant women being put to death, and used them to condemn the massacre as the “worst crime of the Islamic Republic.” He soon paid for the remarks with his ouster from the ruling establishment, while the men he’d criticized were rewarded with ever more influential positions in Iranian government and industry.
The release of the Montazeri recording lifted a veil of secrecy that Tehran had held over the massacre for nearly three decades. In so doing, it also clarified just how much the MEK had overcome in the early years of the regime, only to establish itself as an enduring source of hope for an alternative form of government. Less than two years later, the extent of that endurance would be proven beyond a doubt when regime authorities began acknowledging that the MEK stood at the head of anti-government protests and still represented the greatest threat to the mullahs’ hold on power.
The first major statement to this effect came in January 2018, while regime was in the midst of a nationwide uprising, characterized by chants of “death to the dictator,” and demands for political representation that fell neither into the category of “hardliners” nor mainstream “reformists.” In a speech responding to the unrest, regime’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared that the MEK was responsible for spreading that message, and that it had “planned for months” to do so.
Ever since then, Khamenei and his loyalists have made a habit of warning their colleagues and supporters to be on guard against further MEK-led unrest. Those warnings failed to stop the Iranian people from joining together in another nationwide uprising in November 2019, though it did apparently set the stage for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to crack down much more fiercely on that latter series of protests, killing 1,500 peaceful protesters in a matter of days.
The death toll should be shocking to anyone with even a passing interest in human rights and the prospect for democracy in Iran. But it should also be viewed in context with the 1988 massacre, in order to demonstrate that this latest round of killings is unlikely to halt the activities of a Resistance movement that has grown and flourished in the wake of all previous attempts to destroy it. In fact, MEK “resistance units” have sought to personally confront the regime with this notion in recent weeks, painting various public spaces with messages such as, “The blood of the martyrs of the 1988 massacre gives rise to uprisings in Iran” and, “The key to victory is to rebel and struggle a hundred times harder.”
Such statements reaffirm what regime officials, hardline think tanks, and Friday prayer leaders have been saying about the potential for the MEK to spark even more extensive uprisings against the clerical regime in the weeks and months ahead. Anticipation for these Resistance protests is increasingly visible within the international community, as well. Last month, the MEK’s parent coalition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, hosted an online video conference that linked 30,000 locations in 102 countries, with speaking time allotted to Iranian expatriates and former political prisoners, plus representatives of a growing body of political supporters of the Resistance cause.
The various endorsements of that cause, coming from an array of parties in the US, Europe, and beyond, suggest that when Iran’s regime and its people next uprising, the democratic nations of the world will not all stand idly by, as they did during the regime’s crackdowns in 1981 and 1988. Instead, the international community may finally see fit to lend political support to a movement that has willingly endured tremendous suffering over many years, on the understanding that one day Iran’s tyrannical government would fall and give sovereignty back to the people, once and for all.